Magazine article The Spectator

Hearing Secret Histories

Magazine article The Spectator

Hearing Secret Histories

Article excerpt

Historian Diarmaid MacCulloch on trying to find out what our ancestors didn't tell us.

Does being gay make you a better historian? 'Immensely, immensely, ' says Diarmaid MacCulloch. 'From a young age, four or five onwards, I began to realise that the world was not as it pretends to be, there are lots of other things there. You learn how to listen to what is being half-said or implied, and that's a transferable skill.'

MacCulloch knows what he's talking about. He's Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford and one of Britain's most distinguished living historians. In academic terms, he's on a par with David Starkey, who also happens to be gay. Like Starkey, MacCulloch is a Tudor specialist who has branched into other areas and television work. In 2010, he produced The First 3,000 Years A History of Christianity: , a 1,200-pager that was turned into a well-received BBC series.

His new book, Silence: A Christian History , is a more esoteric project. MacCulloch connects silence to all his most profound interests: history, theology, literature - even music. 'Silence is allied to wordlessness and wordlessness is allied to music, ' he explains in the book. He refers to 'the dog that did not bark in the nighttime' in Conan Doyle's 'Silver Blaze'. (The animal's quietness suggests to Sherlock Holmes that it knew the killer. ) For MacCulloch, the good historian must do his own detective work and read into the gaps, listen for voices that weren't recorded.

'History has been written largely by men and the noise in history is mostly male, ' he says.

'Subtract that, and you can hear all the other voices which haven't been heard - most obviously, and crudely, women.'

Er, sure. But how do you interpret silence, really? You can read sources for things that might have been left unsaid, but that is inevitably a subjective process. Isn't the historian of silence free to read whatever he wants into his subject? 'Yes, but you need to see that silence is never silence, ' replies MacCulloch. 'There's no such thing as a vacuum in this created world. You can hear what is in silence if you shut your ears and try to listen above it.'

That still sounds rather waffly, especially coming from such a robust historian as MacCulloch, who attacks other academics for their biases and says he has 'nothing but contempt' for post-modernism. What is he really trying to say?

The clue, Watson, is in that word 'created'. MacCulloch is a believer. For him, as for most Christians, divinity and silence are entwined. God is silent and invisible, even to those who want to hear and see Him. But He is there. 'The essence of the authority of God is its thereness, ' he says. 'It's a bit like our relationship with our parents. There is nothing you can do about it. You can't declare someone else to be your dad. That seems to me to be a statement about religion. I have a relationship with the Bible because it's just there. I may not like what it says, I may not approve of it or obey it, but it's there and I've got to cope with it.' In Silence, he's trying a synthesis of history and theology - he is attempting to edit out the man-made noise of the past and tune in to what he calls 'the Divine Wild Track'.

MacCulloch's relationship with God is complicated. The only child of a country parson, he grew up lonely and alienated in a big rectory in Suffolk. He loved his parents, but was angry about Christian homophobia. …

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